Since 1994, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation has collected more than 50,000 videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors. The Foundation, now run by the University of Southern California (USC), is currently expanding its mission to include stories of survivors of other genocides. The Institute recently began training five survivors of the Rwandan genocide to use its archiving methods, with the intention of eventually assembling at least 1000 interviews. Some historians fear that the unique character of different genocides will be blurred in “a deluge of voices.” Others emphasize that all genocides need to be chronicled, lest later generations forget and the horrors fade from our collective memory.
For survivors, of course, the memories and scars never fade. But there’s another side of the story: In the aftermath of the Holocaust, an extraordinary drama of resiliency, rebirth and renewal took place in Austria and Germany: the creation of the Displaced Persons camps, which flourished after the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of the war.
Surprisingly little is known or has been written about these camps. The wrenching accounts of torture, death and survival during the Holocaust are told and retold. And after those stories, survivors were eager to jump to the chapter about their rebirth in other countries, mainly the United States and Israel. Indeed, survivors and historians alike have regarded the postwar camps as insignificant rest stops for refugees before they moved on.
But downplaying the influence of these camps has overshadowed one of the most remarkable experiences of the postwar period. The DP camps, which operated from 1945 to 1951, represent the phoenix literally rising from the ashes. They embody the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, adding another powerful chapter to the many that speak to the eternal Jewish determination for survival and renewal — a tenacious resolve that has outlived the Babylonians, the Pharaohs, the ancient Syrian empire, the Romans, the Inquisition, pogroms and Hitler.
Refugees limped into these camps, from all over Europe — emaciated, homeless, penniless and bearing the grief of unspeakable suffering and loss. Amazingly, rebirth and renewal began on day one, as these battered refugees looked forward not backward. They promptly launched educational programs for children and adults, vocational training to help people reintegrate into society, cultural activities–including orchestras, theater groups, and newspapers–democratically elected governing bodies, literary writings and publications, and an unbelievable array of other cultural and social initiatives.
I learned about the activities and accomplishments of the postwar DP camps from my friend Lillian Gewirtzman, who mounted a rich exhibit about the camps in 2003 at the Glencove, Long Island, Tolerance Center that subsequently traveled to other museums and exhibition halls.
It’s not surprising that Lillian and her husband, David, were uneasy as they deplaned in Munich, Germany, in January 2007 for the opening of Lillian’s traveling DP camp exhibit in neighboring Ulm. Both Lillian and David are Holocaust survivors. Their childhood memories are filled with harrowing images of running from Nazis, with a number of close calls that they miraculously escaped.
David and Lillian’s Exodus journeys were different, although they both started out from towns in Poland. David and his family made their way to Italy at the end of the war, after hiding out under a pigsty in Poland for two years. Lillian’s family managed to cross the border into the Soviet Union, where they spent several years in a labor camp in Siberia. They eventually wound up in the Republic of Azerbaijan near Iran. At war’s end they journeyed to a DP camp in Germany hoping to emigrate from there to a safe haven. (Lillian’s brother, Elliott Rais, has written about these experiences).
Now, they were back in Holocaust central to add a live first-person account of renewal, amply documented in Lillian’s photo exhibit.
Winding their way through customs and baggage, Lillian and David felt the flavor of Germany that infused the Munich airport. They could not shake off the irony. Here they were in the city of Hitler’s headquarters, the Braunes Haus (Brown House — leveled by Allied bombing late in the war), where the “Fuhrer” maintained an office and planned many of the atrocities against Jews. Both of them flashed back to their childhoods. Could they ever have imagined that someday they would return to Germany as guests of the town of Ulm?
The last time Lillian was in Ulm was 1948, when she and her family left Sedan-Kaserne, the DP camp that housed many survivors of Dachau. They had spent two years there before moving to the nearby camp Feldafing. Now fifty-nine years later Lillian was returning to Ulm, as a representative of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County N.Y.–accompanying her exhibit on the Displaced Person Camps. Five of the camps, housing about 7,000 people, were in Ulm.
As David and Lillian left the airport, the driving snowstorm that had paralyzed the area punctuated the chill they felt about this strange, almost dreamlike experience. They arrived at their hotel in Ulm late at night — the storm slowed the trip to a snail’s pace. The Mayor of Ulm and other dignitaries would be receiving them in the Town Hall the following day.
The next morning, as they were about to enter the Mayor’s office, Lillian reflected: “What crystal ball would have flashed a picture of my return to a town where I once felt like an unwanted alien, and people whom I once saw only as enemies?”
Continued next week……